by Doug Carpenter


“I Yam What I Yam.”

Knowing how stubbornly even the most pointless pop culture minutia can get stuck in our heads, it wouldn’t surprise me if the first thought that went through a lot of yours after reading the above headline was basically something to the effect of “He didn’t really title this month’s column with a quote from Popeye, the Sailor... did he?”

Why yes, mateys. I soitenly did.

And while this low-rent “To be or not to...” wannabe will never be mistaken for Shakespeare, it’s a perfect example of the kind of defiantly-defensive response you could easily get from a Baby Boomer struggling to answer a question that, frankly, we get asked a lot: “Why are you like that?” [To be honest, we often wonder that ourselves.]

Repurposing something derived from a cartoon character who just happened to exhibit two of the most intrinsically-Boomerish behaviors — resisting authority and refusing to conform — seemed only appropriate, since there’s no telling how wimpy our whole headstrong generation might’ve turned out if we’d never watched cartoons. After all, where do you think the major role models for most of our defining attitudes and values came from?

O.K. Ignoring for the moment the completely-understandable “Uh-oh. He’s really lost it this time.” vibe you might’ve gotten off that last statement, stick with me here. Explaining it requires first that I establish our generation’s claim to the artform of animation, at least as best I can. Because while it’s true that historians widely recognize French artist Emile Cohl’s 1908 Fantasmagorie as the first cartoon-style film, don’t be shocked by the attitude many Boomers share that if something didn’t happen between 1946 and 1964, how important could it be?

That’s why in their view of the animation revolution, early black-and-white efforts like Cohl’s generally receive less love than popular films from the Boomer era — whether it’s the visually-lush modern masterpiece Fantasia or the arguably-crass Fritz the Cat, the first full-length animated feature to be released with an X rating. [That’s not something we’re proud of, by the way. Unfortunately, even though we didn’t invent smut, because it was kind of on our watch that it went from being merely prurient to highly profitable, we tend to take the rap for it.]

Mostly, the cartoons we truly came to cherish were the ones filled with characters and stories that, when our real lives were ordinary and drab, would magically take us away to a [...cue the music and Tinker Bell...] wonderful world of color — a phrase I imagine you’ve heard somewhere before and which you’ll note I’m taking special pains here to acknowledge as a trademark of The Walt Disney Company.

I figure it’s best to play it safe, since the last thing you need is to end up sitting across a table from a bunch of high-priced corporate lawyers wearing Mickey Mouse ears — something I have to admit I’ve always found a little creepy. [The ears, I mean. And I suppose the lawyers, too, now that I think about it.]

The tone and texture of the cartoon world were lovingly crafted by enormously-gifted illustrators like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Max Fleischer, Jay Ward, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, as well as by that previously-mentioned mustachioed fellow Walt. Powered by their unique talents, studios with names like Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Terrytoons, Trans-Lux, Warner Bros. and, of course, the industry’s 500 lb. gorilla [...mouse?...], Disney, would entertain and enlighten a generation of young minds about both society and themselves.

The shows they made would populate not just our TV screens [...every Saturday morning like clockwork plus occasional weekdays after school — if our homework was done...] but on an even larger scale our imaginations. [Hey. Know what would be prefect? If you were actually reading this on a Saturday morning. But given that the odds on that are 1-to-7, I suppose that if it’s not Saturday and you’ve already started, it would be kind of silly to stop now, wouldn’t it?]

Having helped us earn the dubious title of the “Boob Tube Generation,” television gets a lot of both the credit and the blame for the fact that Boomers grew up to be [...depending on how you feel about them...] either exceptionally well-informed or too smart for their own good. Few will disagree, though, that we are nothing if not complex. Considering the diverse range of comic character mentors we “studied under” growing up, how could we have ended up anything but?

Go ahead. Pick any aspect of my generation’s behavior and I’ll name the animated influencer that probably planted it in the collective Boomer consciousness. We might as well start big. Who, for instance, first showed us what courage looked like? Well, Crusader Rabbit should probably be at the top of that list, since his show, which debuted in 1949, was the first cartoon made specifically for broadcast on the newly-introduced medium of television. It wouldn’t be long, however, before he had plenty of heroic company.

Back then, of course, crime-fighting supercritters like Mighty Mouse, Secret Squirrel and Underdog gave the term “rescue animal” a meaning entirely different from the one it has today. But aside from leaving young minds wondering if the family’s beloved pet schnauzer had a mask and cape secretly stashed among his chew toys, their example of “fighting the good fight” may well have played a key role in nurturing the desire to “save the world” that ultimately emerged as a dominant Boomer trait.

Regrettably, many of the other dimensions of the human condition that we learned about watching cartoons don’t elicit the same warm, fuzzy feelings. But they nevertheless were necessary life lessons. Just from the cast of Max Fleischer’s Popeye series alone we were introduced to a whole raft of sociological archetypes.

The commitment-phobic male? That obviously was the salty sailorman himself, demonstrating a maturity deficiency he probably inherited from his absentee father, Poopdeck Pappy. The deferential damsel in distress? That would be his “goil,” Olive Oyl — except in those “special” episodes when she kicked butt after pumping up her punching power by chowing down on spinach.

Looking to create the ultimate overbearing, no-necked bully? Popeye’s nemesis — blustering, bad news Bluto — could’ve been your template. And with Wimpy’s every utterance of his signature “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” the perpetually-penniless moocher presented a not-entirely-humorous reflection of a nation struggling with continuing economic adversity.

For good measure, throw in Swee’Pea, the infant of questionable parentage who, when abandoned on Popeye’s doorstep, was [...for equally-questionable reasons...] placed by the authorities in his uneducated, sporadically-employed, chronic anger management issue-riddled custody. Put them all together and what do you get? A portrait of much the same kind of dysfunctional family that, sadly, many of us would grow up in.

The list of intellectual and emotional epiphanies delivered to us via pen and ink on celluloid goes on considerably. Disney’s Jiminy Cricket introduced us to the concept of the human conscience, not to mention teaching us that — as any Boomer who faithfully tuned in to the Mickey Mouse Club will tell you — the word “encyclopedia” is spelled “ENC-YC-LO-PEDIA.” [Repeat that in your head a few times and I’m sure the melody the goes with it will come flooding back.]

TV’s cartoon animals were hardly strangers to the darker side of the humans they emulated. Case in point, the virtual master class in vengeance conducted by one Mr. Wile E. Coyote, who with truly maniacal determination and a variety of bizarre, mail order-purchased devices has pursued the frustratingly-elusive Road Runner for nearly three quarters of a century without missing a beep [...beep.]

If he only could’ve watched the same genuinely-educational cartoons we were watching and learning from, he might’ve realized that none of those goofy Acme Corporation gizmos was ever going to work. In fact, the fake science was probably covered by one of the seemingly-silly but actually very intellectually kid-accessible lectures delivered by Donald Duck’s brilliant but eccentric uncle, Professor Ludwig Von Drake, who pontificated on everything from music to mathematics to psychiatric disorders — where his Disney writers no doubt found a whole gaggle of jokes about “quacking up” just waiting to be picked off like sitting... [Nope. I can’t say it.]

Even with the constant changes society has experienced since the golden age of TV cartoons dawned in the mid-20th century, a lot of the knowledge that animated academia tried to impart to Baby Boomers continues to be relevant. Time, however, has not been especially kind to some of our generation’s favorites — among them fondly-remembered classics like the 1976 “I’m Just a Bill” episode of ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock! series, which tried to demystify how legislation becomes law.

On the bright side, if they ever decide to update the lesson for today’s kids, considering the state of unbreakable political gridlock the federal government currently appears to be mired in, producing the spot should take a lot less time. All the script will have to say is “It doesn’t.”

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

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